Our Word Maven Looks for Lost Words

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Our word maven, Patricia T. O’Conner, talks about “lost” words—words that once had a literal meaning but are now used only in their metaphorical senses, like “masthead” and “loophole”.

She’ll also answer questions about language and grammar. An updated and expanded third edition of O’Conner’s book, Woe is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English, is available in paperback, as is  Origins of the Specious, written with Stewart Kellerman.


Patricia T. O'Conner

Comments [37]

@Mark: My understanding of the literal meaning of "agnostic" is even more restrictive. An agnostic actually has come to a decision: that the existence of God (or whatever question is being debated) is undecidable. That "undecidable" is a definitive outcome has long been recognized by mathematics: see the Continuum Hypothesis and Gödel's Theorem for fairly well-known examples.

Jan. 15 2014 04:31 PM
Mark from Freehold

Agnostic used to mean undecided, uncertain or not able to decide but it's become extremely popular lately for people, including today's guest host Anna Sale, to use it to mean neutral or indifferent. It's not the same thing.

Jan. 15 2014 02:21 PM
Amy from Manhattan

Car terms: We don't really "drive" a car--the engine does that (via the drive shaft!). This usage comes from the time when a person would drive the horses pulling a carriage. This doesn't happen just in English; the Spanish word for "brakes" ("frenos") originally meant "reins," & still does in reference to horses.

Phone terms: Yes, Bruce & Paul M., we don't dial phones anymore. Also, cell phone co's. still send their customers offers to add more "lines," even though there are no physical lines. (But "Don't touch that dial" also applies to radios, many of which still do have dials.)

Recording terms: Yes, Paul M., & when WNYC hosts run a clip, they still call it a tape!

Jan. 15 2014 02:19 PM

Blockbuster: Used to be a term that referred to someone who used racial/socio-economic divisions to reduce property values in a neighborhood (in the '60s - '70s??), as I recall, then buy all the houses as certain people wanted to flee the "changing" neighborhood. Then they'd sell at much higher prices. Essentially, busting up the block with this leverage, bust up the neighborhood at the cost of both the sellers and buyers. At least, that's how it was used in an episode of "All In The Family".

Jan. 15 2014 01:57 PM
Elizabeth from Long Island

Two things....First, the origin of the phrase bush-league. Secondly, "dead as a door nail" origin. My husband and I debate the meaning of these two. Thanks so much!

Jan. 15 2014 01:57 PM
Dan K from The Heights

According to Wikipedia, the etymology about brass monkeys as cannon ball holders is urban legend. It more likely originates from sets of brass monkeys used as tourist trinkets in Japan and China based on the monkeys depicted on Buddhist temples.

Jan. 15 2014 01:56 PM
Amy from Manhattan

A couple of lost words I'd like to bring back are "gentlefolk" & "elder." Business letters written to a company used to begin with "Gentlemen" when the individual recipient's name wasn't known; when it could no longer be assumed that the recipient was male, it was replaced with "Dear Sir or Madam." "Gentlefolk" is a non-gender-specific word that could serve the same purpose.

I'm ambivalent about "elder" (as a noun), because I don't think "old" needs any euphemisms. ("Senior" sounds like a high school or college student!) But "elder" also means "old," & it has a respectful tone to it.

Jan. 15 2014 01:56 PM
antonio from baySide

I grew up in Hell's Kitchen in the late 70 - early 80/90's and "Blockbusters" referred to a firework which was alleged to be a 1/4 stick of dynamite.

Jan. 15 2014 01:56 PM
wendy rothstein from manhattan

People sometimes say "weary" when they mean "leery" or "wary." are they incorrectly merging those two words, or is it proper to say, when afraid or concerned about something, "I am weary (rather than leery or wary) of that," and are those 2 words really taken from "weary?"

Jan. 15 2014 01:53 PM
Andrea from Philadelphia

@Bill from Somerset: They're using select in the sense of "exclusive" or "having limited availability," not "chosen.

Jan. 15 2014 01:48 PM
Hal from NYC

Each bus will be less crowded, and fewer buses will be crowded.

I think a lot of grammar, usage and spelling errors are made because people are reading less, and what they are reading is written by people aren't getting it right either. Ever notice how many store signs are misspelled in Manhattan these days? Both the guys who own the stores, and the guys who make the signs are not native English speakers. This is not a judgement, just an observation. I believe the English language is evolving as a function of its broad base of users.

Jan. 15 2014 01:47 PM
Joan from Nyc

how about "fix your wagon"?

Jan. 15 2014 01:47 PM
Estelle from Brooklyn

To Rebecca:

While clearly it should be "more business means," "less crowded buses" has a meaning quite distinct from "fewer crowded buses." The MTA might indeed mean what it wrote.

Jan. 15 2014 01:45 PM
Fred from Brooklyn

Is "decadent" on its to being a lost word? It seems that every food blogger/personality/celebrity uses it to denote some overly rich flavor.

Jan. 15 2014 01:45 PM
Geoff from West Orange

Can you talk about "infixes" in English, specifically the term, "a whole nother" meaning "another thing altogether"?

Jan. 15 2014 01:44 PM
Andrea from Philadelphia

My mother used to say, "It's the shank of the evening" by which she meant, "It's still early." I assume this someone evolved from the animal shank, but does Pat know the logic behind this?

Jan. 15 2014 01:43 PM
foodaggro from Brooklyn

Please explain the origin of "scrilla" - vernacular for money. Thank you.

Jan. 15 2014 01:42 PM

Along the lines of "distaff", some feminist do not like the word, "seminal" because it is derived from the word "semen". Is that true? And is it offensive?

Jan. 15 2014 01:41 PM
Custos Libros

"Toe the line" came from a line in the House of Commons past which speakers, regardless of their exuberance, were forbidden to pass.

Jan. 15 2014 01:40 PM
Paul from NYC/Northern NJ

I have mentioned this before, but I love this "switcharoo" between British and American English:

American English:

Windshield: the front window of a vehicle
Windscreen: placed over a microphone to reduce wind noise

British English: exactly the opposite

Additionally, in the UK, the car's "windscreen" is also referred to the "front screen" and the rear window is the "rear screen"

Jan. 15 2014 01:38 PM
Rebecca from Brooklyn

I saw this sign on the subway the other day, in an ad for the MTA:

More bussess mean less crowded busses

Is that correct gramatically?

Jan. 15 2014 01:31 PM

Since when is PTO on every OTHER month?

Jan. 15 2014 01:30 PM
Nora from Brooklyn Heights

What did "blockbuster" originally mean?

Jan. 15 2014 01:29 PM
Paul M. from Long Island City

GAMUT: originally a musical designation for the G one and a half octaves below middle C (gamma ut); then by extension, a complete scale/range of musical notes

GAUNTLET (a type of soldier's glove): "throw down the GAUNTLET," a gesture challenging another knight


DIAL (noun and verb): to dial a number on the phone ("I was dialing the number when I realized I'd forgotten to dial the area code"); also "Don't touch that dial!"

FILM (verb): While other, more accurate words like "record" are used, many still use "filming" or "filmed" regardless of the medium.

Jan. 15 2014 01:28 PM
Cindy Schultz from Upper East Side

I think that, with the advent of electronic devices, the original meaning of "scan" is being lost. When our professor gave us the assignment to read a certain chapter in one book and scan an entire second book, my young classmate wanted to scan the second book electronically!

Jan. 15 2014 01:08 PM
Custos Libros from Manhattan

With regard to, as regards, regarding: all o.k.

With regards to: not o.k.


Also, your thoughts on pronouncing "dour" correctly.

Jan. 15 2014 01:05 PM
Truth & Beauty from Brooklyn

It seems that the homosexual community has co-opted the words "gay" and "queer," which used to mean "happy" and "unusual," respectively.

Jan. 15 2014 01:02 PM
Stephen Brennan from Dobbs Ferry, NY

This is not a lost word but a lost (or confused) phrase: Carrot and Stick.

The way I first knew this, it is the idea of hanging a carrot on a stick in front of a mule or horse, attached to the saddle. Supposedly the animal would walk toward the carrot which would, of course, keep moving away. I don't know if this would actually work.

The newer meaning is reward vs. punishment. It has taken over, as far as I can see. I would appreciate your comments.

The other thing concerns a word that is missing from the language. (I have commented on this before.) The dark shape on the ground under a tree on a sunny day is a shadow. How about the bright shape on the floor cast inside by a window at the same time? It is certainly not a shadow, but what is it?

Steve Brennan

Jan. 15 2014 12:57 PM
Fred from NJ

One word that I fear has lost its original meaning is "literally." Many people use it to mean just the opposite ("I literally died of laughter."). So many, in fact, that I wonder if an argument can be made that its original meaning is on its way to being lost.

Your thoughts on this would make me (figuratively) the happiest man in the world.

Jan. 15 2014 12:50 PM
Eric from NYC

Regarding the word "have," I've seen in many cases where it's being replaced by the word "of." As in "This should of been done." Obviously what people are doing today is listening to the sound of the contraction "should've" and thinking that it's "of."

Jan. 15 2014 12:45 PM
Liz in Savannah from Savannah, GA

Along the lines of Megan's question about less/fewer -- the change from the use of "number of..." to "amount of..." has been so rapid that I'm curious about how phrases such as "A large number of people went to the store" became "A large amount of people ..." in so few years. Not long ago, the latter use would have been deemed incorrect, but one hears it from even the most reputable speakers these days.

Jan. 15 2014 10:55 AM
KPL from NYC

What has happened to our beautiful verb "have" (it is all encompassing)? Every time I hear 'have got' I cringe.

Jan. 15 2014 10:28 AM
Bill from Somerset,NJ

Why does the "ed" get dropped from "selected",as in "showing in select theaters" or "sale on select Items",or "members of the select committee".

Jan. 15 2014 10:04 AM
Bruce from Hempstead

(1) Lost worda: "Dial" a phone number and "dial tone." Phones don't have dials any more, and nobody dials any more.

(2) What's with the phrase "rescue dog"? That's ambiguous. There are "rescuer" dogs - like the fabled St. Bernard with its mini-cask of brandy strapped under it's neck. And there are abandoned dogs who are taken in - shouldn't they be called "rescued dogs", with a "d"?

(3) "Unbelievable." I'm afraid that the true meaning of this word is being lost. It's often used (or rather misused) in everyday conversation to mean amazing, stunning, startling, surprising, unusual, etc. Now I hear it on radio and tv news: "Here's an unbelievable story... " and "You won't believe what happened in Fort Lee..." These speakers do not literally mean that what's being discussed should be disbelieved or is untrue. The problem with this exaggerated misuse is that the word loses its true meaning. If someone says: "Gov. Christie's explanation was unbelievable," or: "The detective testified all day as the star witness, and he was unbelievable," what is really meant? Did the governor give a terrific explanation, and was the detective a convincing witness - or were they actually lacking in credibility? Speaking of which, this same issue now exists with the word "incredible." If we say that a Port Authority official gave an "incredible speech" about the lane closings, what does that mean?

Jan. 15 2014 09:54 AM
Megan from Kensington, Brooklyn

Can you clarify the "over" vs. "more than" in terms of quantity? And "fewer" vs. "less"? I appreciate that more/less is used with definable quantities, but I often see over/less used in writing that I know has been thoroughly copyedited. Thanks!

Jan. 15 2014 09:09 AM
Linda B from Bronxville, NY

Is it 1) "having your cake and eating it too" or 2) "eating your cake and having it too"? I seem to remember that William Safire said it was the second version, which makes more sense. But I've never heard anyone say it that way.

Jan. 15 2014 09:08 AM
Liz from Birmingham, AL

Please, can you help clear this up? I so often see people writing something like this: This is a picture of Sam and I. I'm troubled every time I see this because I seem to remember that the 'I' there should be 'me.' Please, can you clear this up?

Jan. 15 2014 07:16 AM

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